This post begins a weeklong series relating the experiences and observations of a Chinese house church pastor visiting, evaluating, and learning from an American church. These posts were originally posted in Chinese on his personal blog with the aim of helping and encouraging his fellow pastors. Check back every day this week for new posts in the series.
This September, I was able to visit several American churches and got quite a bit out of [the trip]. When I came back, I was inundated with the nitty-gritty of life, but I also knew that if I didn’t write something down, I would never get started. So starting today, I hope that you urge me to record what I saw and experienced, both to help precipitate my own thoughts and to help the churches around me expand their outlook.
On three Sundays, I went to Trinity Presbyterian Church in Charlottesville, Virginia; Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington D.C.; and Citylife Presbyterian Church in Boston. I wasn’t just there to attend their Sunday services, but also to communicate with their elders and pastors, converse with their members in private, and make many detailed observations, so this trip counted as an “in-depth tour.”
There is a big difference between going on an in-depth tour and going sightseeing; this time, I had an opportunity to learn about the theological thinking that went into [various] phenomena. In these past few years, China’s house churches have had the chance to leave the country and come in contact with all sorts of overseas churches; I myself attended an overseas worship service for the first time about seven years ago.
I have to admit, however, that it was not until this trip that I was able to somewhat escape the attitude that I was sightseeing, and not just go on what I would call a Wow Trip: when a Christian goes overseas and looks at a church building, they will exclaim, “Wow!” During the worship service, they will exclaim another “wow.” When they hear the music or when they see the Sunday school classrooms, there is another “wow.” And when getting the various publications, they will again say “wow!” as they put them away, hoping that someday their own church can print such beautiful worship programs, church introductions, and welcome cards.
But once the excitement passes, how much of that [experience] can be brought back to China so that the church’s pastoral [ministry] is more Biblical and faithful to what God has given to us? Very little, because once we come back, we realize that we do not have such a big congregation, or as much financial offerings, or such a large piece of land, or specialized staff, or such a permissive environment. We don’t have anything except an admiration, jealousy, and [even] hatred of overseas churches.
What I took away from many of my trips to overseas churches was the feeling, “We can’t do any of this; what a waste of a trip!” So in this recent trip, I kept asking myself two questions: “What theological orientation and what sort of contextualization formed the basis of these actions?” I also sought verification of my observations from the elders, pastors, staff, and members, listening to their stories and the thought that went behind these decisions.
[I did this] because I believe that what we see on the surface has been customized for a particular time and place, and therefore not suitable to mimic blindly. What we can and should learn from is their faithfulness to and faith in God’s word and the formation process of their theological vision. We can thoroughly consider all of the actions [one must take both] beforehand and afterward.
The three churches I went to had slightly different theological orientations and completely different circumstances and members, so [not only was] the administration [of each church] different, but there were a lot of minute differences as well. I believe that what these three churches have in common are most worth learning from:
- They all confess the theological sufficiency of the Bible.
- They are all deeply familiar with their circumstances.
- They therefore have established a clear mission for ministry and vision for the church.
Finally, and what I think is the number one takeaway we [should] have, is that they put their theology into practice in every aspect of the church’s pastoring [process]!
Forgive my bluntness, but China’s house churches have been lacking in comprehensive theological infrastructures for quite some time. Lacking in a clear theological confession, this limits the [church’s] ability to dialogue with and influence the circumstances around them. This, plus the influence of pragmatism, has turned many pastoral practices into neither fish nor fowl, causing many churches to hit developmental bottlenecks.
We Chinese Christians of this generation have the opportunity to get to know the inheritance based on [both] the last five hundred years of reform and the two thousand year [history of] the church all the more, as well as the opportunity to return to and connect with the universal church. We should earnestly ask ourselves, “How are we to know God and ourselves better while being in fellowship with Christians worldwide and better accomplish what God has entrusted to us at this time and place?”
Wang Jianguo is the collective pseudonym for a group of Chinese house church pastors writing and thinking critically about issues related to the spread of Christianity in their nation. They are committed to preaching a grace-centered gospel, developing resources for the church, and loving China’s urban centers.